An ethnic Shan political party won all six seats in state parliament by-elections in Kyethi township in Myanmar’s eastern Shan state on Sunday, giving it a landslide victory over candidates from the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party.
The Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) contested seats in seven constituencies in the by-elections, but lost one in Kengtung township, said SNLD vice secretary Sain Kyaw Nyunt.
The NLD won only one state parliament seat in the Naungshwe constituency, and the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) picked up the remaining seat in the Kengtung township constituency.
Another ethnic Shan party—the Shan Nationalities Development Party (SNDP)—did not win any seats in the state by-election.
On offer in the by-elections—the first held since the civilian NLD came to power a year ago—were seats in eight states and regions around the country left vacant by incumbents whom the government picked for ministerial posts.
Though the NLD, led by de facto national leader Aung San Suu Kyi, won only nine of the 19 seats in national and regional parliaments, the results of the by-elections will not affect the NLD’s significant majority in the national parliament
They do, however, serve as a bellwether by which to measure growing dissatisfaction among ethnic minority groups with the current government administration and its failure to make significant headway in ending ethnic strife and propelling economic development.
Sain Kyaw Nyunt said that the SNLD, a federal party with local branches in most townships in Shan State and a few in Kayah and Kachin states and the Mandalay region, was satisfied with its victories in the by-elections in Shan state.
“People voted well,” he said of the by-elections, where races were held after being cancelled in 2015 because of clashes between armed rebels and the government army. “Some came from 18 miles away to vote, and the SNLD thanks those people for this.”
“Shan people usually care about business and social events, but we now see they care about politics as well,” he said. “Although we didn’t win all the seats, we are satisfied because we were able to wake up their political minds.”
Several ethnic militias have staked out various swathes of Shan state—one of the most restive and unstable areas of Myanmar—and periodically defend them against other ethnic armies and the Myanmar military.
But Sain Kyaw Nyunt said the SNLD didn’t have any difficulties holding the by-elections because the Shan State Progress Party/Shan State Army (SSPP/SSA) had issued a statement saying that the SNLD could campaign in SSPP-controlled areas.
The SNLD has good relationships with ethnic armed groups that have signed a nationwide cease-fire agreement (NCA) with the Myanmar government as well as those that have not, Sain Kyaw Nyunt said.
Some militias engaged in hostilities with the government army in several areas, including Shan state, have refused to participate in the peace process.
“It is good to have our members of parliament in conflict areas so that they can participate in any peace process and regional development as representatives of the SNLD,” he said.
Aung San Suu Kyi is spearheading efforts to end decades of ethnic separatist civil wars in the country and forge national reconciliation and peace through periodic talks known as the 21st-Century Panglong Conference.
Most armed ethnic groups are seeking autonomy under a federal system in the talks, but some have opted out or been excluded from participating by the government because of ongoing hostilities.
“Although we now have a one-year-old democratic government, we still don’t have as much as we had expected, but we have to wait,” Sin Kyaw Myunt said.
“Previous governments operated under a military dictatorship, and the current government is trying to reform everything that was put in place by the military dictatorship,” he said.
“We know it is not easy,” he said. “We understand the current government and we want to urge it to make more of an effort.”
The SNLD wants the NLD to invite the political groups and ethnic militias as allies and discuss with them how to rebuild the country together, he said.
Win Htein, a top NLD leader, told Reuters that the party faced language barriers and problems with armed groups in the Shan state districts being contested where residents don’t understand Burmese.
Kayah state candidates removed
In a related development, the NLD removed Khin Sithu, chief of eastern Myanmar’s Kayah State, and Pei Du, NLD chairman in Hpruso township, from their posts because they failed to register as candidates in Hpruso constituency before the deadline.
“I was removed from the NLD post because they [NLD leaders] think that it is my responsibility for failing to submit the name of a candidate,” said Khin Sithu, who is also a lawmaker representing Loikaw township.
“I didn’t violate any rule in the party,” he said. “Now I am no longer party chief, but I am still a member of parliament.”
More than two million voters of the country’s more than 54 million population, were eligible to vote in the by-elections.
Reported by Aung Theinkha and Kyaw Thu for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.